"The only meal we receive in a day is gari. We once in a long while receive soup which is as plain as water. We are forced to dig pits and ordered to cover them up as soon as we are done. Nobody is concerned about our health. Death is a normal happening in Nsawam Prison on daily basis. We are allowed to smoke 'weed' and use other hard drugs as officers are the dealers in those drugs. We are flogged by prison officers whenever we attempt to complain about the deplorable conditions we live in".
The narrative above is just a small portion of stories we hear from friends and family members who serve prison sentences across the forty-three prison establishments in Ghana. The issues mentioned go a long way in building misconceptions in the minds of Ghanaians about the country's prison system.
I would attempt in this piece to highlight some of these issues and bring to the attention of all what the real situations are as far as conditions in our prisons are concerned.
There is this belief among Ghanaians that prisoners are fed once a day. Others even think that inmates are fed only when officers feel like feeding them. The quality of the food served and its state is another issue as some even believe that sand and gravels are intentionally mixed with food served to serve as punishment for crimes inmates committed.
The Ghana Prisons Service has as a core mandate to ensure the welfare of inmates under its care. The government provides a daily ration rate of GHS1.80 for an inmate daily. The amount which obviously is insufficient is supplemented to an extent by agricultural activities carried out across prison establishments throughout the country. By so doing, the Service is able to provide three wholesome meals to the about 14,000 inmates under its care. The idea that inmates are fed only one meal in a day remains a myth.
Another major misconception related to inmate feeding is the belief that officers cart food items donated to prisoners by benevolent individuals to their homes. There have been numerous cases where ex-convicts allege that they do not see what happens to food or any other items donated and so conclude that officers share them amongst themselves.
When prison establishments receive donations, the Officer in Charge of the receiving facility personally receives the donation or delegates a senior officer to do so on his behalf. The items are recorded in the donations book and then taken to the store of the facility. A book is kept to monitor the issuance of same to the kitchen, in the case of food items, or the relevant office in the case of other items. Stations are required to submit to prisons headquarters returns on donations received on monthly basis. This regimented system makes it impossible for any individual to divert donated items to their homes as mostly alleged.
There are however cases where individuals or groups make specific donations to officers of prison facilities or the prison administration. The items mostly include but not limited to stationery, office equipment and in some cases vehicles. These items aid in the smooth running of the prison system and their usage though indirectly, still has the inmate as the beneficiary.
The Ghana Prisons Service thrives a lot on the magnanimity of benevolent individuals and organizations and so receives a nasty blow when such allegations are made.
There are stories out there of how prison officers force inmates to do unproductive labour within the walls of our prisons. Digging trenches and covering them up again, breaking rocks and cutting down big trees among others are common to the Ghanaian's ear.
The Service has as a core mandate the rehabilitation of inmates under its care and so run vocational and technical programmes in trade learning workshops within facilities. Inmates willingly subscribe to these programmes depending on which workshops are available at their facilities. The programmes range from carpentry, masonry, kente weaving, auto mechanic, auto electricals amongst others. Most facilities are also engaged in farming to support the feeding of inmates. All these are geared towards instilling in the inmate the work ethic so that upon discharge the inmate can have a means of income to support a law-abiding life. The truth is that inmates are not forced to enrol in apprenticeship but do so out of their own will.
There is, however, the issue of “hard labour” which comes with sentences imposed on a majority of inmates in the country. By this, inmates are required by law to engage in labour for the sole benefit of the state. The prison authorities ensure this by carefully selecting physically fit prisoners to carry out labour within or outside prison facilities with any proceeds that accrue going to the state. There is, however, an earning system where a small percentage of the amount realized is paid to the inmate. The idea is to ensure that by the time an inmate goes on discharge, he or she would have gathered a little income to start life with.
Prisons have been tagged as a place where little or no attention is paid to inmates' health. Many people are of the view that inmates are left to their own fate when they fall ill. Reports in the media, portray Ghana’s prisons as 'death dungeons' where healthcare of the inmate is relegated to the background. Unfortunately, that picture is rather deceptive. The healthcare of inmates spearheads a tripartite of welfare needs of inmates with bedding and feeding as the other members. Physician Assistants, Nurses and Health Aides operate infirmaries and clinics within prison facilities. They see minor cases and refer major ones to civil hospitals close to them. The government, through the Ghana Prisons Service, pays for all expenses incurred on sick prisoners.
Overcrowding and poor sanitation
Recent documentaries about the state of our prisons present a very disturbing sight to the eye. Stories of people arranged like sardines were confirmed when cameras were allowed into the Nsawam Medium Security Prison and other Central Prisons across the country. The bare fact is, Ghana’s prisons are overcrowded. The 43/forty three prison establishments in the country have a total capacity to house a little over 9000 inmates. The current inmate population in Ghana stands at 14,288. The Nsawam Medium Security Prison for example which has a capacity of about 800 houses close to 3500.
The situation makes it almost impossible to guarantee the sanitation of our prisons as facilities to support hygiene are overly stretched.
The issue of homosexuality in prison is as delicate as it is in the Ghanaian society. Our society frowns on homosexuality as the Ghanaian culture had no space to accommodate it. The situation is not different in our prisons as prisons are but just an extension of society.
There are however isolated cases where some inmates are reported to have attempted to, or engaged in sexual acts with others. These cases are quickly brought to the attention of prison authorities by inmates for action to be taken.
Conjugal visits are not allowed in Ghanaian prisons as pertains elsewhere and so inmates during their prison sentence have no access to the opposite sex. Until our regulations are amended, all forms of sexual relationships between inmates remain an illegality.
The issue of hard drugs
Prisons in Ghana have been portrayed as 'tertiary warehouses' for drug users and traders. There have been media reports of inmates alleging that hard drugs like marijuana and heroin are easy to come by in the prison than they are outside. Others claim that officers have an unimpeded passageway for these drugs at prison gates.
These hard drugs are prohibited items in Ghana's prisons and their possession by prisoners, officers or visitors often result in the possessor facing the laws of the land, receive a sanction according to prison regulations or both. Once the prison is a total institution (An institution where all activities are regulated by authority) there are bound to be individuals who would attempt to outsmart the system just to enjoy old habits. Some inmates in this regard contract friends, family members and in some cases unscrupulous prison officers to smuggle these prohibited items to them for use. They normally bait them with lucrative amounts to courier these items through food items, in the case of visitors and by concealment in their accoutrements, in the case of officers.
The Ankaful Maximum Security and Nsawam Medium Security Prisons alone recorded over 20/twenty interceptions of assorted prohibited items at their gates in 2017. These interceptions point to the fact that the prison system is doing a lot to prevent inmates from getting access to these drugs. An ongoing case in which an inmate of James Camp Prison in Accra is being tried for possessing marijuana while in custody and the trial and dismissal of an officer of Ankaful Maximum Security Prison for smuggling marijuana into the facility are testaments of the Service's quest to keep hard drugs out of prisons in the country.
Physical abuse of inmates for long has been a common tale of ex-convicts in the country. There are allegations of officers beating up inmates as punishment for crimes committed or for contravening prison regulations.
The Service has signed on to numerous human rights conventions and strives to achieve good ratings whenever the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment visits the country for assessment of detention centres. Positive ratings received over the years point to the professionalism of the Ghanaian prison officer. Isolated cases of excesses are swiftly investigated and culprits brought to book.
A year in prison connotes eight months outside
We have all heard before that when someone is sentenced to one year in prison in Ghana, the fellow serves only eight months and comes out.
The prison system in Ghana has a remission system which reduces a convicted person's sentence by a fraction on condition that the inmate is of good conduct and industry. Mostly, inmates who meet the requirement enjoy one-third of their sentences slashed meaning they are discharged from prison after serving two-thirds of their sentences. It should be noted however that inmates who do not submit to prison rules and regulations do not enjoy the one-third remission.
Some areas of need
The Ghana prison system which was hitherto an isolated and secluded portion of society is gradually opening up. Recent documentaries and interviews have covered never seen areas of our facilities. This bold move by the prison administration is geared towards the proverbial 'selling your sickness so as to find its cure'. Our facilities need a facelift if we are to achieve the reformation and rehabilitation of inmates as most prisons are remnants of the colonial system.
Trade learning workshops should be established across all the forty-three prison establishments in the country to present inmates with opportunities to acquire employable skills to aid easy reintegration upon discharge. This would ensure that ex-convicts do not go back to the life of crime.
Smaller prison facilities should be established in district capitals to help decongest our facilities and improve sanitation. It is only in a serene environment that inmates can have the peace of mind to subscribe to reformation and rehabilitation programmes on offer by prison authorities.
Our Prisons should be properly resourced to engage in large-scale farming in furtherance of government's planting for food and jobs programme. With very cheap labour and land already available, our prisons are capable of producing enough to feed inmates and reduce the burden on government.
Inmate feeding rate of GHS1.80 per inmate daily is woefully inadequate and should be adjusted substantially.
Cars should be procured for transporting prisoners to court, hospital, labour sites and for transferring them between facilities. Other essential logistics should be provided for officers to work with as the security of the prison is the security of the nation.
The general public is entreated to take a special interest in the operations of the Ghana Prisons Service because the Service gives meaning to the country’s criminal justice system by ensuring that offenders serve their sentences.